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Montana High Court facing important decisions

| July 3, 2022 12:00 AM

Immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Montana Legislature’s majority leadership sent a warning.

“As the debate over abortion shifts to the states, all eyes in Montana need to be on our own judicial branch of government,” state Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, and House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings cautioned.

They’re right — the state judicial system will serve as the main arena for the ensuing clash over abortion access in Montana.

Currently, abortion remains legal in the state on the grounds of the Montana Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling in Armstrong v. State. Blasdel and Vinton described that decision as “activist and erroneous,” arguing that “Montana judges should rule based on the text of our state constitution, which doesn’t mention abortion at all.”

What the state constitution does mention, however, is Montanans’ right to privacy — which is the founding argument in the Armstrong case and what abortion rights groups are leaning on.

“Our state’s constitutional right to privacy is the only thing standing between Montanans and the politicians who want to control the most intimate aspects of our private decision making,” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, and Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena said in a statement reacting to the Dobbs decision.

Also lingering within the state’s judicial system is a lawsuit challenging a slate of laws passed by the 2021 Legislature aimed at limiting abortion access in Montana. Planned Parenthood of Montana sued to block the laws, and a district court issued a preliminary injunction that has thus far kept the laws from taking effect.

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen has appealed the injunction, and now the decision lingers in the Montana Supreme Court.

It’s a lot to weigh for the seven justices on Montana’s high court — and further highlights the importance of the upcoming general election where two justices are seeking to retain their seats: Justice Ingrid Gustafson and Justice James A. Rice.

While technically non-partisan, politics certainly infiltrated the race in the lead-up to the June primary as Gustafson’s challenger, James Brown, was publicly endorsed by Knudsen, Gov. Greg Gianforte and the state Republican Party.

Brown didn’t respond last week when reporters with the Montana Free Press asked about his stance on the Armstrong case. Gustafson didn’t directly answer the question either, but stated that the state constitution “cannot be cast aside” adding that she works “very hard to uphold the values and individual rights enumerated in Montana’s Constitution.”

Meanwhile, Montana’s longest-serving Supreme Court Justice Rice is being challenged by Billings attorney Bill D’Alton.

While it’s unclear where each of the candidates stand on the impending abortion access and right to privacy debate, it’s as clear as day that Supreme Court justices wield enormous power in making decisions that affect Montanans in far-reaching ways — from gun rights to health care and personal privacy.

Pay attention to these races. Ask questions and learn about the candidates. Don’t overlook the judicial races come November. They’re possibly the most important choice on the ballot.

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